In 1941, Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral went hunting one day in the Alps. When he got home, he noticed his socks were covered with cockleburs (Xanthium). Curious to know why, he examined one of the cockleburs under a microscope to discover they had tiny hooks on the ends that allowed them to grab onto any sort of material that formed a loop. Typical clothing made from woven fabric made the perfect field of loops.
De Mestral spent the next 15 years trying to figure out the perfect material from which he could create a synthetic version of what he experienced in nature. He settled on nylon because it does not rot, break down, or attract mold. He eventually discovered that when nylon is heated on one end, it forms a natural hook. Then he found a way to weave nylon thread into a series of loops in a separate piece of fabric. When the fabric with the hooks was pressed against the fabric with the loops, the two pieces naturally stuck together just like the cockleburs had stuck to de Mestral's socks. In 1960, Velek Ltd. acquired the exclusive right to market the product in North and South America under the name Velcro.
This revolutionary fabric changed how Marines put on their flak jackets, how astronauts, scuba divers, and firemen put on their suits, and even how you put on your children's shoes—all because de Mestral paid close attention to what most people ignored.
One of the secrets of innovators and entrepreneurs throughout the ages is that they go out of their way to pay attention to their mistakes, random events, and things they weren't looking for. They themselves will tell you—it is not a matter of intelligence. It is a matter of being observant.
While most people tend to ignore their mistakes and accidents, legendary innovators and entrepreneurs are different. They are fascinated by the ridiculous and the absurd because that's the stuff they find most interesting. That's usually where the biggest secrets are hidden.
Isaac Asimov once said, "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka'—but 'that's funny.'" Some of the greatest discoveries in history came from the aggressive pursuit of idle curiosity.
Nobel Prize winner Alexander Fleming explained that if it had not been for his previous experience where a drip from his nose had accidentally fallen into a petri dish growing bacteria and killed it, he would not have made the connection, seven years later, between the random floating of a mold spore that fell into another petri dish and killed the dangerous staphylococcus bacteria. Fleming explains:
But for the previous experience, I would have thrown the plate away, as many bacteriologists must have done before... It is also probable that some bacteriologists have noticed similar things...but in the absence of any interest in naturally occurring antibacterial substances, the cultures have simply been discarded.
Fleming's colleagues often teased him for having so many petri dishes lying around. His workbench was often crowded with 40 to 50 petri dishes. While most researchers would clean them out and throw them away after use, Fleming kept them around for weeks after his initial experiment was over.
Before cleaning them out, he would examine each one to see if anything interesting or unusual had happened. Had Fleming been as tidy as his colleagues, he might have never discovered penicillin, which has saved hundreds of millions of lives all over the world. Fleming saw what no one else saw because he was messy, observant, and he connected the dots.
Several thousand years ago, Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, "Unless you expect the unexpected, you will never find truth." Winston Churchill observed that "Men occasionally stumble across the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened."
In order to open the eye of the brain to start seeing solutions that are invisible to others, we have to teach ourselves not to reject that which is absurd and outrageous. As the famous geneticist JBS Haldane put it, "The world is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine."
The universe is as infinitely big as it is infinitely small. The inside of an atom is a mirror of what we see when we look to the heavens. Indeed, the universe of possibilities is so big and ever-expanding that what is not possible is guaranteed to happen every now and then.
The bottom line is this: You will almost always find what you are not looking for before you find what you are looking for. Don't ignore what you're not looking for. You will turn over many stones before you find a diamond. In fact, you may never find a diamond, but you may discover something you weren't looking for at all—and that something may change your life forever.